After all the adventures of the past few days, despite the amazing generosity and warmth of everyone I met in Burlington and Fort Madison and the miraculous recovery of all my stuff, I really hit a wall Thursday night. I keep thinking about Gary, the protagonist of the Stephen King story, The Man in the Black Suit, a story I’ve been working on turning into an opera for several years now. (You can find the story in Everything’s Eventual : 14 Dark Tales.) Gary escapes a visit from the devil completely unscathed — he, too, finds that nothing terrible has in fact happened — but nothing is ever the same for him, and at the end of his life he is still waiting for the devil to return and destroy him. The Man in the Black Suit is a cautionary tale about a loss, not of life, limb, or property, but of faith, which is the most unrecoverable loss of all.
I drove down to Quincy Thursday night, past the reach of the newspaper stories and back into anonymity, but I was spooked enough that couldn’t bring myself to camp out alone, so I checked into the cheapest motel I could find and spent the whole next day exploring Quincy, a wonderful town, full of great old houses (Maine Street is like Park Street in Brandon on steroids, one excellent house after another), visiting the crazy Moorish house right on the river that serves as the Visitor Center, and being given a long private tour of the house that belonged to the founder of the town, John Wood. I bought a book, The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House, by a local woman whose kids found a secret room while playing hide and seek one day, had an excellent lunch of spanakopita and Greek salad at one of the two(!) Greek restaurants in Quincy, hung out at the bookstore run by gentle and friendly folks, and then headed down to Hannibal for another cheap motel night.
When I woke up Saturday I realized it made no sense to continue traveling on in this frame of mind, so I drove back up to Quincy to take a look at the Eells house, home of another leading citizen of Quincy who was active in the Underground Railroad, before driving down to St. Louis, where I joined up with an absolutely great guy named Mike Clark, who among many other things, organizes monthly Full Moon Floats where he takes a group of people out on the river for a night paddle and dinner. On the way to meeting up with Mike, I stopped at a gas station in a sketchy part of town, and during the two minutes I was in the bathroom someone tried to clip my bike off the top of the car, no joke! So I put my big NYC chain and lock around the bike and the roof rack, now both my kayak and my bike are pretty seriously locked down to the top of my car, and I’m hoping we’re done with this theft story for good.
Mike and Betsy and I set off in a canoe around 6:30. It was cool and overcast, seemed like a pretty unprepossessing night for a paddle, but I just needed to get out on the river in the company of people who get it. Wow, it was totally totally the right thing to do! We put in south of the confluence with the Missouri, so this Mississippi is a whole new story: no more is it a series of pools created by the network of locks and dams, it is a free-flowing river with more than twice the volume now that the Missouri has joined it. Just crossing over to the island (i.e. not the whole width of the river) was a real undertaking: you have to find an eddy and paddle upstream a good ways before heading across or you’ll end up downstream of the island you’re heading to. We landed on this island and headed to a spot which is under the river during high water but turns into a huge sandy beach with blue holes, pools up to 25 feet deep of river water that connect to the main channel deep underground. You can see some daylight pictures here.
We gathered some wood and lit a fire and finished cooking up some excellent jambalaya and opened some wine, and suddenly the clouds parted and there was the full moon rushing upwards, creating an open space in the clouds and shining through and illuminating the whole scene, including a coyote off by the tree line who imitates the bark of a domestic dog so well that you can only tell he’s a coyote by the telltale upward yip-howl he can’t entirely suppress. And the talk was wonderful: Mike has paddled the whole Mississippi a few times, and the whole Missouri, too — he is a real river rat on a level I can’t even aspire to attain, and to talk river on both the practical and the mystical level with these wonderful folks in this amazing secret place in the middle of St. Louis was healing and inspiring on so many levels. Wow.
I got to my cousins’ house at 2:30 am, totally fried and totally happy. Thank you, Mike and Betsy, with my whole heart!